Life begins at 75 for Ratan Tata

Life begins at 75 for Ratan Tata

Last Updated: Fri, Dec 28, 2012 06:01 hrs
Ratan Tata

Titoo and Tango must be eagerly looking forward to Saturday (December 29, 2012) morning.

Reason: their master, who works 16 hours a day and often flies between four countries in a week, would finally be able to spend more time with them after he retires from Tata Sons on Friday evening.

But the two German Shepherds may be in for disappointment.

While he would surely stick to his words of not allowing his "shadow to hang over Bombay House like a ghost walking the corridors", it's also equally certain that Ratan Tata, 75, would not slow down his pace and be happy watching the seagulls on the Arabian Sea, which is just 40 meters away from his apartment in Colaba.

Unlike his predecessor, JRD Tata, who in 1991 handed over to him the chairmanship of Tata Sons as well as control of the trusts, Ratan will continue to retain control of the latter. Significantly, there is no retirement age at the trusts, which together control around 66 per cent of the shares of Tata Sons. As a custodian, he will have to anyway keep a close watch on the proceedings in the group.

But what will keep Tata really busy in his new office at Elphinstone Building (a new elevator has just been installed in the building, which is just a few blocks away from Bombay House), are his mega plans for the trusts, which were so far attracting only half his attention. The first indication of that came in his acceptance speech for a Lifetime Achievement Award instituted by the Rockefeller Foundation when he said his "life's work isn't done yet" as he hasn't been able to touch as many people at the bottom of the pyramid.

Tata clearly believes "patchwork philanthropy" - giving a bit of cloth here and food there - would not go far. So he had moved away quite early from a benefactor-dependent model from a partnership model.

The second part of that drive would come now as Tata doesn't share the common belief that charitable institutions have to operate on a shoestring budget and does not need to create a professionally-run corporate body.

In a recent interview to American television journalist Charlie Rose, Tata laid out at least a part of his action plan. He said he would focus on rural development, conservation of water and his most visible goal is to do something in nutrition in children and pregnant mothers because that would change the mental and physical health of India's population in years to come.

That's a long enough list. But does it mean he would cut himself off completely from all that is remotely considered commercial in nature? The answer is a big No.

Just like JRD, he would remain Chairman Emeritus of Tata Sons and several group companies - an ornamental position - but one which gives him the moral authority to give advice if asked for by the new Chairman. Tata himself has made it clear that he would be available to anyone seeking his advice but would refrain from taking any active role in the running of the group's businesses.

Going by the extraordinary closeness he shares with Cyrus Mistry, the latter wouldn't be miserly in seeking his counsel.

The advice would certainly be much more frequent in matters relating to Tata Motors. The company, which is clearly closest to Tata's heart, is suddenly feeling the pressure from newer competitors like Mahindra & Mahindra because of an indifferent performance in domestic markets.

Tata has also made no secret of his desire to remain involved with the Nano – the world's most affordable car which has never really lived up to the hype around it.

Going by his public statements, Tata would obviously try to reverse that even after he retires as he has himself said he would love to be "involved" rather than think this is the level that Nano sales can be.

And then there is the buzz about Tata planning to set up an international centre with state-of-the-art facilities to design a wide range of products. Though there is no confirmation on this, the initiative is not a surprise considering that the man actually joined the family business by accident – he initially wanted be an architect and live in the US.

The design centre would be quite close to his heart as Tata has said quite a few times that the one benefit of studying in the School of Architecture was that it taught him to doodle when bored. He said board meetings were one place he would get bored - that compulsion, thankfully, has just got over.

All this is quite a handful for people much younger in age and in the prime of their working life. But Tata would do more. For example, he has already said he would like to attend the annual general meetings of Tata group companies as a shareholder and ask questions.

Besides, Tata will continue to be on the board of directors of Alcoa, apart from being on the international advisory boards of Mitsubishi, the American International Group, JP Morgan Chase, Rolls Royce, Temasek Holdings and the Monetary Authority of Singapore. He is also on the board of trustees of Cornell University and the University of Southern California.

And then he has to do more justice to his fleet of cars (his pet grouse has been that he just didn't get enough time to drive them himself), and flying - he has expressed his desire to flying helicopters more often as he loves the engineering in them.

Clearly, his two canine friends would continue to have a difficult time in getting Ratan Tata’s attention.

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